Ryan Chiao

Ever walk past a stranger on the paths of Cross Campus and wonder, “Who? Who are you?” Weekend does. Everyone at Yale has a story. Everyone has many stories. Here at Weekend, we want to know more. There’s the guy who sits at the same table in Atticus every afternoon, typing furiously. There’s the brunette swimming laps at the Payne Whitney pool. Everyday people, everyday lives. We want to know more. What’s going on under the surface? What’s the story behind the people you recognize, but never meet?

Weekend’s dutiful writers will profile anonymously-nominated members of the Yale community as part of this weekly series. Who will it be next? Check in next week to find out.

**

The lights dim. The room is silent. A projected string of seemingly random numbers dances on the black backdrop. An orange spotlight illuminates a microphone positioned alone in the middle of the stage. A teenager emerges from behind a velvet curtain and walks up to it.

“Hi, my name is Ari, and in sixth grade, there was this poster in my math class.” The crowd goes wild. “And the poster said … 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820 9749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679…”

I would go on, but it would take up the entire page.

I first met Ari Essunfeld ’23 a long way away from the stage of Windham County’s Got Talent. I was a first-year playing ultimate frisbee with Yale Superfly, struggling to remember everyone’s names. When Essunfeld introduced himself, he struck me immediately as an interesting character. His flowing sun-bleached locks pulled back into a ponytail were a far cry from the coastal surf towns of America. The reflective Top Gun aviators perched on the bridge of his nose shrouded him with an air of mystery. I made a mental note that his tall stick-like stature would be great for catching my errant throws.

On a long bus ride back from a tournament, one where Essunfeld scored plenty, a teammate had serendipitously uncovered his past. Local celebrity of small-town Brattleboro, Vermont, travelling speaker to elementary schools within the state, top ten in the nation for the most digits of pi memorised were among the many titles he held.

Last weekend, we met at Claire’s for, so fittingly, pie. Though pumpkin was the only kind they had, I was determined to fulfil my fantasy of discussing pi while consuming pie. He didn’t find it as funny as I did.

Essunfeld first encountered the never-ending chain of numbers when he was 11. His middle school math classroom had the the first 75 digits of pi plastered on the walls.

“I was looking at it and I can’t remember if I thought I wanted to try to memorize it or if I was just zoning out looking at this poster,” Essunfeld said. “But next thing I know I have the first 20 in my head. Then the next 20. And it sort of became addictive, like how much more can I remember?”

4960 more digits, and counting was the answer.

There are many strategies that one can use when memorizing copious amounts of information. One of them, the person-action-object system, involves breaking down a string of numbers into sets of two digits that is then converted into a series of three visual images: a person, an action, and an object. The major system is another which helps people remember long lists of numbers by converting them first into consonants, then into words. But Essunfeld doesn’t use either strategy.

“[Those methods] can be slow. Part of the fun for me is how fast can I say these numbers,” he explains, before reciting the first 30 digits of pi at a dizzying pace. Essunfeld uses a form of indexing known as hierarchical chunking. He groups every hundred digits together, then breaks that hundred down into five groups of sixteen, a group of twenty, then down further into groups of four digits. Though I was struggling to keep up, he has got it down to a fine art. He said that he was able to recall specific digits when asked about their order. And of course, I tested him. The hundredth decimal of pi? “Nine.” The  hundredth and first? “Eight.” Hundredth and second? “Two.” Check for yourself.

Essunfeld showed me a visualisation of his thought process. He opened his bag and pulled out an envelope-sized book titled “Ari’s Little Book of Numbers”. Each page was covered from top to bottom with, as the title so eloquently suggests, numbers. I flipped all the way to the back and took a shot at memorizing a set of four random digits. “Those are the digits of e” he pointed out, matter-of-factly. Turns out he’s branching out from pi. I wouldn’t have known.

There are other applications to Essunfeld’s machine-like memory. He claims to be particularly good with names, birthdates and contacts. He can keep track of a deck of cards. I told him my phone number, and he was able to recite it back to me immediately after — in reverse order. He asked for my birthdate and told me that I was born on a Friday. I was speechless. A pretty simple formula was all it took, according to him.

Some question Essunfeld’s unique talent. “If there’s no end to pi, then why bother?” But for Essunfeld, that is exactly what he finds intriguing. To him, no matter how much time you put into it, there will always be more numbers waiting. Though I find this incredibly frustrating, Essunfeld finds it therapeutic.

“If I’m stressed because I’m having a bad week… I’ll happily spend three hours memorizing pi in the morning,” Essunfeld explains. For him, pi is a form of meditation. Just like listening to music, scrolling through the decimal places in his head allows him to remove himself from his surroundings.

“I really want to stress that this isn’t about some special ability. Memorizing the digits of pi is not indicative of some special talent, it’s a case of nurture over nature,” Essunfeld insists. In his opinion, practice is what allows people to achieve their goals. In the coming weeks, he hopes to apply the same level of dedication and commitment to the ultimate frisbee team, among his many other new pursuits at Yale.

I had just one last question for him.

“Can I take you to Vegas?” I asked half-jokingly.

“I get that a lot.”

Ryan Chiao | ryan.chiao@yale.edu

RYAN CHIAO
Ryan Chiao currently serves as a Sports Editor for the Yale Daily News. He previously was as a Photo Editor and covered swimming and diving, women's lacrosse and the athletic administration as a staff reporter. Originally from Hong Kong, he is a junior in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in Global Affairs.